Here is a signing that no one saw coming, and that is tough guy Arron Asham completing his Atlantic Division tour by signing with the New York Rangers this afternoon for two years, at $1 million per season. While I was surprised to learn of the acquisition, I am very pleased with it, though it probably spells the end of Brandon Prust’s time on Broadway. However, Asham is a much better fighter and a lot more intimidating than the scrappy Prust. He might not bring as many intangibles, but his signing is a bargain price, something that Prust’s would most likely not be, as he is expecting to get both more years and more money with his new contract.
Complaints about the way the Pittsburgh Penguins have conducted themselves this past season have become so commonplace that they blend right in with your general barrage of gripes that you can expect to see with each season. But how about one from a Penguins’ fan himself? Sure enough, these last few weeks have gotten so out of hand, culminating with yesterday afternoon’s debacle with the Philadelphia Flyers, that it prompted an Open Letter to be posted on their SB Nation blog PensBurgh. This is a very thoughtful yet straight-to-the-point message from a lifelong Penguins’ fan that really captures everything that the rest of the league has been saying for years:
It’s that time of the year again! The Stanley Cup Playoffs are here at last, as we get ready for nearly two straight months of non-stop, intense hockey action! Every year I post my predictions on this blog, so the tradition continues, this time with no fancy explanations, just the pure, unadulterated picks. Just some quick thoughts, though, and that is my utmost desire to see the Philadelphia Flyers pound the Pittsburgh Penguins into oblivion. Will it happen? Well, against the boards, most definitely, but on the scoreboard, probably not. A man can dream, eh? Either way, you can expect 95% of the hockey world bringing themselves to do the unthinkable for the next seven games or so, and that is cheer on the Broadstreet Bullies. Let’s also hope the Rangers will put the clamp down on the eighth place Ottawa Senators as well. Everyone keeps saying how the Senators have given the Rangers fits and the two teams do not match up well, but let’s get one thing straight here: the Rangers are the best team in the Eastern Conference, second best in the entire league. If they can’t get out of the first round, then they don’t deserve it, plain and simple. I’m also counting on the Devils to make quick work of the Florida Panthers, even though they are three slots lower than them in the standings, but I covered that a few days ago in this article. Now it’s time for the picks!
Long has been the talk of how ridiculous the NHL’s final standings alignment is, in awarding the top three places to each of the three division winners. Naturally, the number one spot is always deserving, but sometimes two and three are in a higher place as a mere formality and not because they actually deserve it. In most seasons, usually it is the number three seed that can be called into question, but this year, we have a complete mess from top to bottom, with teams jumbled all over the place. The guilty conference is the East, more so than the West, that only has one team, the Phoenix Coyotes, out of place in that infamous three seed. We can always find a way to live with one team sneaking into a place they don’t belong, but how about when two of the top three teams don’t belong? The following is a look at the final standings for the Eastern Conference:
It’s just an ordinary day here at National Hockey League Elementary School, as the Pittsburgh Penguins, the school’s star student, continues to ace all of his tests and be a model of in-class behavior to the rest of the students. He behaves well to the teachers and never misses a homework assignment, and heck, he even gives the teacher an apple every Monday morning. You will not find anything on his record—the report cards are spotless and parent-teacher conferences are always brief. The teachers, and more importantly, the principal, all love Pittsburgh, but ask any fellow student what they think, and you will hear a whole different story. You see, there is something behind all of that seemingly wonderful behavior. Out on the playground during recess, when the teachers are at lunch and the only supervision consists of two ragged old ladies who are only there for a paycheck and the chance to raise their adrenaline by screaming at unsuspecting children, Pittsburgh is always involved in certain, dangerous activities. Try to climb the jungle gym and he’ll pull on your legs. Stand at the top of the slide and try to sit down, and he’ll push you head first before you are ready to set yourself. Play dodge-ball and forget about it, Pittsburgh is going to throw the ball at your head. Then comes time for a kickball game, and Pittsburgh is running to first base. An outfielder grabs the ball and pegs him, knocking him to the ground. Pittsburgh gets up, and goes right to a teacher to complain about what has happened to him. An egregious abuse of such a wonderful student, who is never in trouble! The person who throws the ball gets a detention and a warning of a suspension. Pittsburgh gets a free ice cream cone at the end of lunch. Then comes another game of dodge-ball a week later, and you get struck in the face by guess who. Approaching the principal, not even a teacher, with your nose bleeding and tears running down your face, you tell him what happened, that the throw was intentional and Pittsburgh does it all the time—hurting people and then turning the tables and complaining when other people do it to him—and the principal tells you to suck it up and be a man, that your actions are bordering on that dreaded term for an elementary school student: tattle-tale. That’s what you are, after all. You just took a swipe at the school’s star student, and now you are labeled the whiner, and it is you who will be disciplined in the end. Can’t you just grow up and be a man!?
What has changed in the last few months? What has changed since Brendan Shanahan gloriously took over as the NHL’s disciplinarian, promising much stricter action? The only noticeable one has been that things have not gotten better or even stayed the same, they have gotten worse. Blindside hits and cheap-shots never seemed to be a problem until the last couple of seasons, prompting a change and an ushering in of the new era of safer hockey. Suspensions would be handed out like candy to children at a carnival, and because of it, dangerous hits would stop, and the offenders would gradually find themselves out of a job. Well, as most teams near the 50 game mark in this safe hockey haven, thanks to the tireless efforts of Shanahan and league officials, do you feel that the status quo has changed at all? When your favorite players skate near the boards, do you feel any safer watching them?
This is not really a post-game recap, just my general thoughts on yet another amazing and magical Winter Classic that the NHL has put on for us, between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. Surprisingly, for what seems like the first time in the brief five-year history of the event, there were no ice malfunctions, and the passing and skating was pretty smooth early on. Though the game did slow down in the second, I would definitely rank the overall pace of this afternoon to be one of the better ones yet. And of course, there was plenty of drama with yet another photo finish—something that seems to happen every year, which I will elaborate on later.
At the culmination of the 1993/94 NHL season, the New York Rangers snapped a 54 year Stanley Cup drought, with their thrill-ride seven game series victory over the Vancouver Canucks. This team, the assembly of which, is one that people only dream about today,and has perhaps gone unmatched in hockey over the last 17 years, with its combination of veteran leadership, superstar power, clutch goal-scoring ability and goaltending, and a much less talked about presence of skillful youth. This is the one lineup, that, if given the opportunity, any fan of this team would ask for. However, two seasons later, the Rangers arguably fielded an even better team, but one that is largely forgotten, due to it being sandwiched between the Rangers’ Stanley Cup victory and the ensuing lockout, and later, the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in New York, to re-team with Mark Messier, a duo which won four championships in Edmonton. The mid-1990′s was the most exciting time to be a Rangers’ fan since probably the 1970′s. Anyone who has read Losing the Edge: The Rise and Fall of the Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers (Pub. 1995), by Barry Meisel, knows that GM Neil Smith was poising his team to become a dynasty, but unfortunately, it never happened, and the Rangers would have to settle for only one. The 1995/96 season had even more promise at the start than 1994 did, and although they finished lower in the standings, this had all the makings of another championship.
I have not watched every single minute of pre-season this year, so forgive me if this line combination has already been tried.
As of right now, the most obvious and likely choice to land the left-wing spot on the first line of the New York Rangers is Wojtek Wolski. With newest acquisition Brad Richards being brought in to hopefully be that elusive star down the middle, and oft-injured Marian Gaborik planning on having a bounce-back year and return to his former greatness, the Rangers would like to compliment their skill with a player who has the potential to come in with a bang. Wolski, however, can join a long list of former players the Rangers have had, both loaded with talent, but equally susceptible to a disappearing act. The former first round pick from 2004 only had 12 goals last season, one he split with the Phoenix Coyotes. While he does add some much-needed size, he lacks toughness and is not much for checking.
To put it bluntly, the Rangers have had too many players act as reclamation projects, and it is already known that the rope Wolski is on is very short, and can be yanked at any time, especially given his $3.8 million price tag. If he clicks with Gaborik and Richards, then by all means, he could put up more than 20 goals, even though that is something he has accomplished only twice in his career. However, given the circumstances, and the fact that I do hold out much hope for players to automatically reverse their bad habits, if Wolski does not find himself cut to free up cap space before the season starts, then by the middle of October, the Rangers will be making that move.
Other than Wolski, another name that could be a fit for the top line wing spot is Brandon Dubinsky, because again, he brings size, and this time, actual toughness and fighting ability. But he also showed great chemistry with Ryan Callahan, and it would not be worth disrupting that just to load up on one line, because secondary scoring is equally as important. So, is there anyone on this team who could excel in that role? Well, how about another one of their free agent signings this summer, Mike Rupp? The enforcer and hard checker could be perfect on the line because he would not be relied on to score goals, just the occasional chip-in. His presence would allow Richards and Gaborik (not as a knock against them, but neither of them are physical players) more room on the ice, as well as acting as protection. Rupp could add size and balance, and be a force to be reckoned with in front of the net. Can Wolski do that?
Bottom-line is, when Wolski does not score, he is absolutely useless–worthless is the better word. He does not check, fight, or do anything aside from take up space. Rupp, on the other hand, can throw that body check to free up room, stand in front of the net to set a screen, and worst comes to worst, fight to stick up for a line-mate in case they are taken advantage of.
The Rangers have not had luck in recent years with enforcers. Donald Brashear was too old and Derek Boogaard experienced a severe injury. Colton Orr was the last good fighter they had, but alas, he did not have much hockey sense aside from rearing back and clocking someone in the head. Rupp has been known to score the occasional goal (ironically enough, he scored too many against the Rangers while a member of the Penguins) and his 22 goals in the last two seasons combined are very good for an enforcer, if not abnormally high. He is not a tremendous skater, but he can get around well enough that he won’t be a detriment. The Rangers should give this combination a shot. We know Wolski is going to be a bust, so lets just forgo the disappointment and give this threesome a shot in exhibition. Gretzky had Semenko, so why not let Gaborik and Richards have Rupp?
Does it sting? Hell yes, it stings. Despite being thirty-nine years old, I wanted Jaromir Jagr back in New York Ranger blue. In the seasons after the lockout, he single-handedly brought the franchise back to respectability. How was he repaid? He asked for a two-year deal in 2008 and Glen Sather would not back down from a one-year contract. And so they parted ways, with no ill-will towards each other. Jagr went to the KHL and became a king with Omsk Avangard, proving he can still play professional hockey, and excelled at the last Winter Olympics. A few weeks ago, when it came to be known that he wanted back in the NHL, I was expecting the Rangers to take him with open arms. After all, the situation would have been perfect: he would get a one year deal for $2-3 million, and would not be the captain or under any pressure because he would not be the team’s go-to guy. He could have scored his 20-30 goals and sailed off into the sunset the way he was meant to.
The Penguins then entered the equation, and it made even more sense, figuring Jagr would want to end his career where it began. As more teams, included the Red Wings, became interested, the Rangers sat silent, causing Jagr to tell the press that they did not even call him. Then today came the bombshell…Jaromir Jagr has signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. They seemed to have come out of nowhere, how a lot of signings happen nowadays, leaving a lot of people either scratching their heads in confusion, or gnashing their teeth in anger. He has made a strange decision here, alienating fans of both the Penguins and Rangers. The Pens would have more of a reason to be angry, though, since Jagr’s camp was actually in contact with them for a few days.
But as for Rangers’ fans, why is there so much anger? As soon as it was announced that he signed with the team’s Pennsylvania rival, all hell broke loose on Twitter and message forums. All that Jagr meant to this team for those four seasons went out the window, and all of a sudden he became money hungry, a headcase, and locker-room cancer within minutes, none of those being true. Jagr is in Philly because he wants to play hockey, and they wanted to have him there. The Red Wings and Penguins withdrew their offers, and the Rangers never even made a call. Why be angry at him? This fan base has an obsession with youth, and I was quickly told by people on Twitter that signing him would have robbed a roster spot from a young player. This too is false, as the Rangers do not have any promising young players at the right-wing position to be ready this season, especially one that would have added another element to this team. At thirty-nine, Jagr would have come here, kicked ass, and taken prisoners. Whether this is a testament to how good he is or how bad the Rangers are, I do not know—bottom line, he would have been this team’s best player, but if he did fail, there would have been little risk attached. But in getting back to the youth movement, that is the direction the Rangers are heading in, despite my warning that all teams still need a veteran presence. The Rangers do not see the need for such an old player, and therefore, they did not bring him here. Please do not label Jagr a traitor, because I absolutely believe that if the Rangers wanted him, he would have signed here in an instant.
And so I wish Jaromir Jagr all the best in Philadelphia. It pains me to say, but I would like to see him succeed, despite the Flyers being near the bottom of my list in likeable teams. I cannot speak for everyone, but I harbor no hard feelings towards him in any way. It would be nice to see him score 30 goals, just to shut up all the people who say his career is over. Best of luck, Jaromir, you will still be one of my favorites.